Tin Bucket Drum
nytheatre.com review by Naomi McDougall Jones
July 26, 2012
Tin Bucket Drum is a piece of theater brought from South Africa to New York by the Horse Trade Theater Group in conjunction with the South African Imewbu Trust. It is ostensibly a one-woman show (supported by a percussionist) that is advertised as bringing together "elements of magical realism, shadow puppetry, Kabuki theatre, and live percussion." In reality, it is quite purely and simply storytelling at its best.
The actress in question is Mpume Mthombeni (for whom the program woefully offers no bio) and it is difficult to describe what she does over the course of this one-hour-and-change theatrical work. To say that she shifts instantly back and forth between playing 10+ characters with absolute fluidity, specificity, and mastery is true, but hardly captures it. To get closer is to say that she does so without drawing a moment's notice to herself as the actress. Mthombeni's transformations are never a magic trick meant to stroke the ego of the performer or even to impress the audience; she simply transforms completely, from character to character, in order to tell the story at hand. In truth, before long, I was wondering why on earth anyone ever needs more than one actor at a time at all.
So cohesive in artistic vision is this piece that it is decidedly difficult to parse out responsibility for its success. Mthombeni is lifted and supported at every turn by quietly magical lighting, set, and sound design, by the ever-present, yet never distracting, significant percussionist talents of Wake Mahlobo with whom she shares the stage, and the clearly inimitable directorial force that is Karen Logan. The entire creative team works solidly as one unit to sweep you along on this tale.
All of this before even getting to the beautiful story written soaringly by Neil Coppen, also of South Africa. I won't tell you much of the plot; I'll leave that in the capable hands of Mthombeni. It deals with a young "drummer girl," Nomvula, who is born with a fiercely beating heart to rescue the formerly joyfully musical residents of Tin Town from the stifling blanket of silence lain down by the censorial government officials. This government has enacted this ordinance in exchange for "a life free from rhythm making," a rhythm that inspires "unlawful, ungodly" behaviors. It is Nomvula's irrepressible delight in rhythm that will bring music and rain back to her people. In addition to being a vital, pertinent, universal allegory, it is a simple story told with a passion and humor that grabs you by your innards and doesn't let go until it's over.
Though I rack my brains for a fault with which to temper this review, in truth my only criticism can be that there were too many empty seats and not enough hands in the theater to applaud this team as fully as they deserve. Go. If you have $18 to your name and care half a whit about the theater, go see Tin Bucket Drum. You will leave the theater with your heart beating out a joyful rhythm as, like the little drummer girl, it "dances across the table tops, dances across the rooftops, and off into the sky."